The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

William Stafford’s “For the Grave of Daniel Boone” is composed of twenty-five lines, in four unrhymed stanzas of six lines each and a final one-line stanza. A speaker, perhaps Stafford himself, recalls the Kentucky pioneer who explored the American frontier westward even to the Yellowstone country, broadening the borders of a fledgling nation. The poem addresses not so much a personal memory of the man but rather the heritage of his image and his relentless perseverance, his “going on.” It likewise honors him as one of the country’s spiritual forefathers, a man who embodied the desire to explore and embrace the land.

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In the first stanza, “he” clearly refers to Boone, the frontiersman who makes a new wilderness his home. The farther west he travels, “the farther home grew,” but his home does not grow more distant from him as much as it grows with him, enlarging. As Boone journeys beyond the Mississippi River and enters a different landscape, one carpeted with flowers, Kentucky becomes merely a single room of his expanding home, this nation.

Then, “[l]eaving the snakeskin of place after place,” just as a snake sheds and abandons its old skin, Boone presses on through forests, grasslands, and the world of nature. His vision is so steady, his marksmanship so true, that his image is preserved into the present, a model or “story-picture” from which children can learn and be inspired. The third stanza shifts into the metaphor of a velvet tapestry, describing how the children smoothly enter Boone’s natural world as heirs to the landscape, able to recognize his world as their own. “It is like [the coming of] evening” is an intuitive explanation for the gradual intensity of discovery, as the children learn of his world and are drawn to it like quail “coming in for the kill”—that is, quail coming in close enough to be killed by the hunter if he so desires. (A hunter himself, Stafford has recalled elsewhere how quail would be attracted to his campfire, walking innocently right into the range of his gun.)

The speaker then addresses the reader in a grandfatherly fashion, remarking, “Children, we live in a barbwire time.” Theirs is a modern world where the land is quite literally divided by fences of barbed wire, but perhaps the line also alludes to the political and emotional uncertainty of postwar, mid-twentieth century life. Informed by the figure of Daniel Boone, those in the present are likewise “hunting [their] own kind of deepening home,” seeking their place in the natural world. The speaker then lifts a rock from the Kentucky earth and, following the old custom, places it on the frontiersman’s grave. One should note that the poem’s title is not “At the Grave of Daniel Boone” but “For the Grave of Daniel Boone.” The poem, like the rock, is an offering that is placed there, a token of respect.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

Stafford is basically an intuitive poet who denied using any conscious literary technique, choosing instead to come at his poetry by means of sound and emotion. Witness the power of the poem’s last two lines, which consist only of plain, one-syllable words. He seldom employs strict form, writing here in a loose, accentual meter, using four (or occasionally three) stressed syllables in each line but varying the number of unstressed syllables per line from three to seven. These lines are essentially breath lines, shaped by the natural rhythm of respiration. Mistrusting rigid intellectual patterns or formulas, Stafford prefers to be guided by impulse. In a 1984 interview he admitted, “I like syncopated rhythmsbroken rhythms, things that start and stop, vagrant impulses, rather than marching rhythms.” Perhaps this mistrust is one reason why he seldom uses traditional rhyme. He declared, famously, “For me, all sounds rhyme, sort of.”

In “For the Grave of Daniel Boone” Stafford does employ slant or near rhyme in stanzas 3 and 4: “quail” and “kill”; “time,” “palm,” and “home.” Still, the primacy of sound remains, for he strongly relies on the repetition of words (“The fartherthe farther” in line 1, “deepening home” in the first and fifth stanzas) or repeated vowel and consonant sounds (“snakeskin. . . place”). All the sounds within a poem, he believes, depend on and influence each other.

Stafford seems to agree with the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth that the language of poetry should be the informal language of ordinary, sometimes even colloquial, speech. While this poem captures the nuance and flavor of everyday language (“I heft this rock”), it also depends heavily on the richness of connotation and the subtle ambiguity of simple words. For instance, the phrase “his picture freezes” creates an image of stasis, a lack of motion like action caught in a photograph, but it also suggests the chill of death. When the children “go over the velvet falls” into Boone’s world, the word “falls” connotes the drape and folds of velvet, as well as the waterfall that may appear in this tapestried landscape.

As these examples demonstrate, Stafford is largely a poet of vivid image and metaphor: Boone’s world as a mansion, history as a tapestry, quail-children that tread “sacred sand,” modern life as “a barbwire time.” The speaker and those whom he addresses “like to follow the old hands back,” that is, follow the wise old ones like Boone, represented by their ringed and knuckled hands, who can lead them back into nature and the past to instruct them. The poem is characterized by a quiet intensity, simplicity of language, and acceptance of whatever truth will come.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 92

Andrews, Tom, ed. On William Stafford: The Worth of Local Things. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Holden, Jonathan. The Mark to Turn. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976.

Kitchen, Judith. Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1999.

Pinsker, Sanford. “William Stafford: ’The Real Things We Live By.’” In Three Pacific Northwest Poets. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Stafford, Kim. Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 2002.

Stitt, Peter. “William Stafford’s Wilderness Quest.” In The World: Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

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